Every election season, armies of math wonks brush off their statistical models and preside over the news divisions' all-important decision desks, deciding when to call each state. The networks use state-by-state exit data from the National Election Pool, which is embargoed until 5 p.m. ET. The embargo has been in place since the 2006 midterm elections; it was a direct result of the leaking of exit-poll data during the 2004 presidential election that erroneously projected Kerry ahead of Bush at the point when many viewers shuffled off to bed.
Representatives from ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, CNN, Fox News and The Associated Press will be in a quarantined room with NEP number crunchers. There is no Internet connection. Cellphones and BlackBerrys are confiscated, and bathroom trips are supervised.
“They do a lot of statistical work in there which makes the conversation very uninteresting,” says Sheldon Gawiser, head of elections at NBC News. “I have avoided it.”
At 5 p.m., when the embargo is lifted, the quarantined statisticians confer with their election desks to begin making projections in the unambiguous states. They use NEP data as well as ancillary poll data and precinct and county results.
Throughout the year, networks are in a cutthroat competition to be first. Wander into any news executive's office, and you will see a wall of flat-screen TVs tuned to the competition. But Election Day is an exercise in sensory deprivation.
NBC News turns Studio 3B, the home of newsmagazine Dateline, into an election studio. The TVs are tuned to NBC and MSNBC only; competing networks are verboten. Staffers are briefed to keep the news from the competition to themselves.
“They don't tell me what's going on,” Gawiser says, “because we don't want to be influenced by it. We really isolate the decision desk.”
This policy was instituted after the 2000 election, when the media was widely pilloried for being too quick to call Florida. “Ever since then, everybody is much more careful about these projections,” concedes Fox News' Rhodes. “But at the same time, once you know something, you have to be in a hurry to report it.”
“You don't want to be a week late,” says Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the CBS Evening News. “If somebody beats me by a minute, I really don't care because our audience doesn't care. It's not like they're sitting there with four TV sets. There's always going to be somebody who wants to crow, 'Oh, we beat them by 30 seconds on the call.' Whatever.”
At NBC, Gawiser says, the threshold for calling a state is less than a 1 in 200 chance of making an error by statistic. “My job is No. 1, to be right,” he says. “And No. 2, it is a news organization, and we do want to make news when it's still news. We try to be timely. But I am not under any pressure.”
At CNN, there are nearly two dozen people on the decision team including statisticians, producers and reporters on the ground in battleground states. “The decision team doesn't watch the competition,” Feist says. “It doesn't influence us in any way. There were primary [races] where our competition had called a state sometimes hours before we did. So there were times when we even told our viewers other networks have projected the winner in this state, but we have not yet done so and here's why.”
Enter John King and his magic wall, where color-coded precincts and counties are conjured up at the touch of a finger. The precinct deconstruction is not overblown trivia designed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, says David Bohrman, executive producer of CNN's election coverage.
“I think it's just fascinating,” he says. “It's not just people bloviating. It's real information. Here's an overused word in television—transparency. But it's explaining to our viewers why we're doing the stuff we're doing and why we're not. I think it's really helpful.”
Look Who's Talking
The historic and at times surreal nature of the election has sprouted a cavalcade of TV pundits, coiffed and powdered and ready at a moment's notice to expound on the sublime (the finer points of health-care policy) and the ridiculous (Sarah Palin's $150,000 makeover).
A genre of cable news programming has grown out of the political race, from CNN's Election Center (now Campbell Brown's No Bias, No Bull zone), to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show to Election HQ on Fox News. Cable and broadcast news divisions have seen record tune-in for political programming, stretching from the hard-fought Democratic primaries through the debates and beyond.
On Nov. 4, all hands will be on deck. The broadcast networks will go wall-to-wall coming out of the evening newscasts. CNN will be live from 6 a.m. on Monday through midnight on Wednesday. Fox News will be live beginning Tuesday at 5 a.m. MSNBC's A-team—David Gregory, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Maddow—will be live beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday and continuing throughout the night.
Who will make it into the election-night sound-bite pantheon? MSNBC's left-leaning troika of Olbermann, Maddow and Matthews will no doubt keep traffic cop Gregory busy, especially if the presidential race takes a turn in favor of the Republican ticket.
On Fox News, Brit Hume will be presiding over his final election as the network's Washington, D.C., managing editor. Hume will retire after 35 years of the Beltway grind, while he's still a leader in his field.
“The worst thing you can do is to be hanging on when you've lost your fastball,” he said recently. Look for Hume—a skillful dispenser of the wry observation, the kind of zinger that takes a few seconds to smart—to bring his high heat on Tuesday.
His bullpen will include Karl Rove and The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol. It's been instructive watching both men during the 2008 campaign. Rove has emerged as the cold voice of reality while Kristol has embraced his role as neo-con cheerleader. He described Palin as “my heartthrob.” And that was way back in July before the “media elites” even knew who she was.
Couric emerged from the wreckage of negative media speculation about her future at CBS News with a series of deft interviews during the political campaigns, topped by her prolonged grilling of a clearly caught-off-guard Gov. Palin. That interview has been parodied on Saturday Night Live and watched by millions online. “I thought that interview would get a fair amount of attention,” Couric deadpans.
On ABC, George Stephanopoulos will again share anchor duties with veteran co-hosts Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer. ABC has out-rated its broadcast competition for post-debate analysis. As the heir apparent of ABC's political mantle, it is Stephanopoulos' opportunity to take the lead.
Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, has come into his own in front of the cameras during the 2008 campaign. And his encyclopedic knowledge of state-by-state precinct and county breakdowns will be a valuable chip for the network on Tuesday.
No network has employed more analysts this election season than CNN. Anderson Cooper even joked during the final presidential debate that the political team had become a “hoard.” So how will the hoard be choreographed on Election Night?
“I don't want to use the word 'whimsical,'” Bohrman says, “but there really is no real science to it. It's just sort of accidental where they are. And people have gotten used to their seats.”
So expect to see Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Alex Castellanos, who was a media strategist on the Bush/Cheney reelection campaign, in close proximity. The left/right duo have been known to break bread together, even after Begala called George W. Bush a “high-functioning moron” during CNN's coverage of the Treasury bailout.
Donna Brazile, erstwhile Gore campaign manager, has made her share of headlines this season—many immortalized on CNN T-shirts.
Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's chief legal correspondent, has become a prominent member of the network's political roundtable by dancing right up to the line. He chalked up Hillary Clinton's reluctance to concede during the primaries to “deranged narcissism.”
“You never quite know what he's going to say,” Bohrman says. “He really approaches everything like an attorney in a courtroom. His opinions pop, but hopefully he doesn't cross the line.”
There's another line many of these pundits are approaching—a deadline. It remains to be seen how many of the soundbite experts will still have seats when this game of “Musical Chairs: Politics '08 Edition” is over.
“This election is going to turn over a lot of this talent pool,” says Fox News' Rhodes, “just because so many people have gained a lot of visibility in covering this election and still others are probably going to decide that after this one they aren't going to stick around for another. The whole schedule here and at other [networks] reflects this permanent reality of covering the campaign. And who knows how that's going to shake out.”